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State surveillance boom sparked by fear-mongering political populists, says UN

Special Rapporteur calls for privacy as a right, but also for International Data Warrants

The United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy has heavily criticised new surveillance laws in France, Germany, the UK and the USA, saying they are “predicated on the … disproportionate though understandable fear that electorates may have in the face of the threat of terrorism” but are informed by “little or no evidence” of their “efficacy or … proportionality”.

Those words come from the Report to the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (.docx), formally published this week after it was presented by Prof. Joseph Cannataci of Malta, the first-ever Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.

Cannataci writes that “... the past eighteen months have seen politicians who wish to be seen to be doing something about security, legislating privacy-intrusive powers into being – or legalise existing practices – without in any way demonstrating that this is either a proportionate or indeed an effective way to tackle terrorism.” The resulting troves of data, he argues, represent a new security risk as they are a tasty target for criminals.

He therefore calls for nations to “improve security through proportionate and effective measures not with unduly disproportionate privacy-intrusive laws.”

Cannataci also recommends that privacy laws be harmonised, so that governments everywhere impose strong governance on their intelligence agencies and adopt broadly similar privacy regimes backed by international law. The Rapporteur says “when it comes to surveillance carried out on the Internet, privacy should not be a right that depends on the passport in your pocket.”

But Cannataci also recommends that that harmonisation would create a better way to work with private sector data collectors, such as “Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and other tech giants operating data centres internationally”.

Such companies, he argues, should become subject to what he calls “an international authority which would be able to grant the equivalent of an international surveillance warrant or international data access warrant that would be enforceable in cyberspace.”

“Countries signing up to such a new treaty or additional protocol could be contributing their own specialised independent judges to a pool who would, sitting as a panel, conceivably act as a one-stop shop for relevant judicial warrants enforceable world-wide – naturally in those countries which would become party to the treaty.”

Cannataci argues that while such a mechanism would offer a clear route for states to access private data, it would at least do so within an international legal framework that constrains nations and therefore “mark out the true democracies from those states intent mainly on using the internet as a means of social control and retaining power within their own jurisdictions.”

There's plenty more of interest in the 10,000-word, 20 page report, including detailed criticisms of recent surveillance laws in the UK. You could do worse than devote a couple of hours to the document this weekend. ®

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